As we kick off our basketball previews, we start by looking at some of the biggest questions surrounding the OVC in the upcoming year. Like last year, we’ll look back mid-season to see just how right (or not) we were.
1. How big of a deal is the new emphasis on foul calls against ballhandlers going to be?
Coaches are worried, that much is certain. It was without a doubt the most talked about change at OVC media day this year. For those of you who haven’t kept up with rule changes, virtually any contact with a perimeter ballhandler, whether it be a hand check, arm bar to the back, virtually everything is supposed to be called a foul. The idea behind it is to give the guards more freedom, and increase scoring.
The OVC head of officials has met with every coach about the rule, and all the coaches have had referees at practice to know what will and won’t be called. Even so, you’re basically unteaching years of basketball for most of the players. The beginning of the year could see a lot of free throws, so brace yourselves now.
2. Will those calls remain consistent?
This is probably the biggest concern among coaches. If they’re calling those fouls one game, and the next they’re not, how do your players get into a rhythm? How do they know whether they can be aggressive or not on any given night? Will the rule be enforced as much in February as November? Just like with the new block/charge call, consistency is going to be key.
3. How does the earlier start to practice this season benefit teams?
Or, alternatively, does it lead to burnout mid-season. While many coaches expressed they love being able to spread out those early practices, and have more time to implement their playbooks, there was also near universal concern about it’s impact mid-season. Some coaches expressed their players were already getting antsy, and a majority told me to “check back mid-February.”
4. Is the East Division still the beast of the conference?
Yes, but it may be to a lesser extent. Eastern Kentucky by nearly all accounts is the team to beat, but after that things are murkier. We expect Belmont to be good, because it’s Belmont, and they’re seemingly always good. But teams like Belmont, and Tennessee State lost a lot of talent. The West is just a cacophony of unknowns: Southeast Missouri historically struggles to live up to expectations; Murray State is a complete wild card; Eastern Illinois and UT Martin return a lot of talent, but from teams that barely made the conference tournament a year ago. I think the East is still better, but the gap is likely smaller than last year.
5. If Eastern Kentucky isn’t who we expect them to be, then who wins the East?
The above answer works pretty well here also. Belmont is likely the favorite to upend the Colonels if they slip, and Jacksonville State is a team a few coaches called the “dark horse” of the conference. Morehead State is probably in the discussion as well, although they’ve undergone a complete facelift from last season.
6. Is Murray State a contender for the conference crown?
Racer fans are among the most dedicated and loyal around, but even some of them I’m talking to have concerns about this year. Zay Jackson’s injury is a huge issue in the backcourt, although the Racers will get Clemson transfer T.J. Sapp in December, before OVC play begins. Head coach Steve Prohm is high on his two JUCO transfers anchoring the frontcourt, but there are just so many unknowns about this team, anyone that tells you Murray State is winning the OVC right now is talking purely from fandom.
7. Is Murray State a .500 team?
No, really. Murray State hasn’t finished a year at or under .500 in more than 25 years. Let’s assume the Racers match their 10-6 conference record from last season, which may be somewhat lofty. They have two non-Division I teams on their slate, which puts them to 12-6. Things are looking good, right? To get to 15 wins, and another winning season, the Racers must win three of the following: at Valpariso, at Old Dominion, at Auburn, vs MTSU, at St. Mary’s, vs Evansville, vs Lipscomb, vs SIU, at WKU, and at Dayton.
Lipscomb at home should be a win, so we’re up to 13. All of the other games are toss-ups at best in my mind. I’m not saying they don’t do it, but it may be tougher than some fans have come to expect.
8. Can Southeast Missouri win the West?
Their head coach, Dickie Nutt, wasn’t sold at media day on his team’s prospects. Sure, they return two of the, if not the best frontcourt players in the league. But the Redhawks lost a lot of three-point production from the guard position, and were just 8-8 in OVC play a year ago. They were sluggish defensively last year in the backcourt, leading to a lot of open layups and jumpers from opponents. This is the best chance they’ve had, but the West might be even closer from 1-5 (sorry, SIUE) than last season.
9. Does Belmont solve their rebounding woes from a year ago?
In short, no. In fact, head coach Rick Byrd had no problem saying himself that rebounding could be a problem for his Bruins this year. Last year’s team didn’t miss a lot of shots, which helps mask some of the issues down low. (At least, until those games where you struggle shooting) While J.J. Mann is back, he’s going to have a different role in the offense, likely playing more on the ball, and sophomore Craig Bradshaw has big shoes to fill to replace Kerron Johnson. There doesn’t appear to be a dominant big man on the roster, which means rebounding will likely be a team effort for the bruins.
10. Does Belmont’s six-year NCAA Tournament streak end?
It’s a good question. Too bad I don’t have a good answer.